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Globalization is not so new

POSTED July 10, 2009 8:41 p.m.

I was throwing sticks for my dog into the Snake River on Sunday evening, watching a fully loaded ocean-going barge on the slack-water of the river. The barges move mountains of goods all around the Pacific Rim, including from my part of the inland Pacific Northwest to Asia. This year it has looked to me like the intensity of barge traffic is down, I assume due to the global recession.  


I sometimes swim in the Snake River, in early August when the water gets briefly above freezing, and as a swimmer I don’t much appreciate the mega-waves the barges make. The whole watery world shifts in three dimensions around a swimmer, and it gives me a dose of vertigo — not a comfortable feeling a quarter mile from shore.    


Globalization has its costs, you could say, to us old-lady swimmers.  


The ocean-going barges come to where I live — about 300 miles from the ocean — only because of a whole network of dams and locks built by the federal government over several decades. The dams are controversial, mostly because they significantly stress the salmon and steelhead that move up and down the rivers in their reproductive cycles.    


Still, because of the upside of the economical shipping traffic, and the large volumes of cheap and carbon-free electricity the dams generate, I think they’ll be around a good bit longer than my dog and me. As I see it, the dams are one small aspect of globalization, and we will not retreat from them anytime soon.  


Here’s the longer-term view that helps me keep some perspective on such matters as I watch the barges or am engulfed by their tsunami-like waves as a swimmer.  


Globalization is not actually a human invention at all. Mother Nature set up an experiment based on globalization, uniting Asia and North America with firm and dry land between them, off and on throughout the long-lasting Ice Age.  The land bridge only disappeared, in fact, a few thousand years ago. That’s not long ago to a geologist like myself, and the natural experiment resulted in a number of different plants and animals making their way from Asia to North America.  


Mother Nature, if you will, did a lot of one-way shipping from Asia to us, and the changes brought by this natural globalization were more profound than our economic globalization of recent years. (Scientists don’t know why the natural shipping was so strongly one-way, sad to say.)
Just to cite one example, the fossil record makes it pretty clear the brown bear walked across the land bridge from Asia into Alaska. It then spread down the coast of North America. The inland grizzly bear arose from it, meaning the grizzly is a cousin to the brown bear, and the polar bear appeared in the Arctic as a cousin to them both.  


If the land-bridge hadn’t forced globalization onto North America, we’d be short of the three bears we know and value. Globalization has its benefits, you could say. Still, I have no doubt the arrival of the three bears on the ecological scene was plenty difficult for the animals that had earlier occupied many lands without them. The Asian invaders changed the food-web, just one example of the dynamic processes to which Mother Nature is always committed – even at the cost of earlier species and ecological relationships.  


There are dozens of other plants and animals that made the same basic journey as the brown bear, coming to us from Asia courtesy of natural globalization of the late Ice Age. The gray-headed Chickadee is one, the Blackfish another.  The jury is still out, but the evidence suggests we ourselves — modern people just like us — made it to the New World in the same way. The native tribes of the Americas, if you will, are all the product of the earlier wave of globalization. (And domestic dogs, of course, always come along with people — just like my faithful dog walks with me along the Snake River.)


From this broader point of view, the current economic globalization we are creating is just Phase II of the natural globalization people experienced in the Ice Age.  


It’s déjà vu all over again.  
— Dr. E. Kirsten Peters is a native of the rural Northwest, but was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Questions about science or energy for future Rock Docs can be sent to epeters@wsu.edu. This column is a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University.

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